Professor Amy Dayton: New Director of the Writing Center

Amy Dayton
Dr. Amy Dayton

You earned your PhD from the University of Arizona. Are you from Arizona? What brought you to Alabama?

I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in Florissant, which is the next town over from Ferguson, which no one had ever heard of before last summer. As a college student, I studied abroad in France, and then after graduation, I went back to teach English in a high school in Nantes. After that, I moved to Arizona to do an MA in applied linguistics, then a PhD in rhetoric-composition. I came to Alabama after being hired by the UA Department of English in 2005.

Are you currently teaching any classes?

Yes, I teach English 317, which is the Writing Center Internship. It is a practicum for students who want to work in the Center. I also teach graduate seminars in composition pedagogy/theory, and literacy studies.

You were recently appointed director of the Writing Center. Have you enjoyed the transition, and are there any changes you’re looking to make there?

I am definitely enjoying the transition into the Writing Center position; the Center is a terrific place. Our consultants do a great job of working with clients at every stage of the writing process, and their enthusiasm makes the Center a more welcoming space. We are fortunate to have a well-funded and well-supported Center, with a great space and a staff that includes both undergraduate and graduate students. One of the biggest changes that the Writing Center faces this year, and on into the future, is the growing number of distance learners who need our services. Our Online Writing Center is in high demand, and we are looking at ways that we can better serve that population of students.

What does distance learning at the Writing Center entail? In what ways is that aspect of the Center being improved?

We offer distance-tutoring for students who are taking online or continuing studies courses. We are planning to pilot synchronous tutoring, where tutors and students meet in “real time” online to discuss the students’ writing. Distance learners make up a large percentage of our Writing Center clients. These students may not be physically on campus, but they are an important part of our community, and we are very happy that we are able to offer writing support to them.

I see “language attitudes” listed as one of your research interests. Can you tell us more about what that means?

“Language attitudes” refers to popular beliefs and conceptions about the English language, and about literacy more broadly. A few years ago, I wrote an essay on the “English Only” debate in Tuscaloosa, a topic that crops up frequently in our local newspapers, because immigration has been a heated issue in Alabama. Some of my other work looks at the “English Only” movement in historical context, especially the Americanization movement of the 1900s. At that time, millions of new immigrants came to the US, creating a national hysteria centering around the desire to teach English and to promote common language and literacy practices (such as speaking / writing in English only, becoming familiar with a common set of patriotic / canonical texts, and using standardized grammar). At moments like this one, literacy has been both a tool for social mobility and a bludgeon used to stamp out language diversity. Generally speaking, my research looks at literacy as a site of conflict and tension: What is it that we think literacy should do for us, in our local communities or our nation at large? What happens when literacy doesn’t deliver on all the expectations that we’ve attached to it?

What answers have you uncovered in the course of your research?  

I’ve learned that increased literacy in fact doesn’t always do what we assume it does, such as guarantee social mobility or economic growth. Of course, many of us who read and write for a living, as English professors do, are proponents of literacy, and we’ve seen in our lives that it can be transformational. But I would argue that as a society, we tend to put too many expectations, and likewise, too much blame, on literacy. I would like for us, as educators and as citizens, to embrace a more realistic picture of what literacy is, and what it can and cannot due for us as a society. Increased literacy is a positive thing, and we should pursue it. But literacy alone is not a cure-all for the very real social inequities that we see in our state and our nation.

You’ve written on “digital literacy” and “trends and technologies” recently. Why is it important for people to consider these topics? How is technology changing the ways we read and write?

My study, “Digital Literacies in Rural Women’s Lives,” is recently out in the newest issue of the Community Literacy Journal. It is a co-authored piece with my former graduate students, Jennie Vaughn and Allen Harrell. This was such a fun project, both because of the collaborate nature of the work and the challenge of working with qualitative data, but also because digital technology is a HUGE component of how people read and write today. When we talk about standards for literacy, and access to literacy, we now also have to talk about things like Internet access, Wi-Fi, “hot spots,” and the monopoly of cable companies in rural America (because many rural communities rely on just one phone or cable company to provide them with internet access). What we might think of as “mundane” aspects of people’s lives in fact have a big impact on their access to information, and on their reading and writing practices. When it comes to literacy, the “mundane” is really quite important.

Why did you decide to look specifically at rural women’s lives?

The focus on rural women came out of the shared interests of my co-researchers and I held: I have an interest in community literacies and qualitative research; Jennie Vaughn is a feminist researcher, and Allen Harrell completed a thesis project on rural communities and the “digital divide.” So this project brought together these shared interests.

What would you next like to research? Are you currently working on any new projects?

My current research project is an historical and archival one. I am looking at the American settlement house, an institution which combined social services with literacy instruction and literacy activities for students at all levels. I’m looking at the settlement as a model of how educational institutions can play important community roles and engage in civic debates. At the height of the settlement house movement (first half of the 20th century), the US faced debates about immigration, about literacy and the English language, and about how best to adjust to an increasingly multicultural society. So I’m interested in how educators and students participated in and shaped those debates, and I’m interested in the parallels with today’s debates over how educators and students can participate better, and more thoughtfully, in civic life.

You also had a book published this year. What was your writing process? How did you choose your topic?

The book I published this year, Assessing the Teaching of Writing, is an edited collection of essays on the topic of teacher evaluation. More than a dozen authors, myself included, contributed chapters written for professionals who work for university writing programs, writing centers, and centers for teaching and learning. The book focuses on the many techniques, frameworks, and technologies that we can use to help teachers set outcomes and evaluate their progress. Ultimately, the purpose of assessing teachers is to help them to learn, develop, and improve their pedagogical practices. Teaching writing is skilled work; rather than knowing intuitively how to be effective in the college classroom, composition instructors need good training, mentoring, and ongoing professional development. So the collection addresses this need.

What is your favorite genre to read, and why?

I read in almost all genres, but I especially like nonfiction. I have just re-read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, and I am starting her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. I also try to “read local.” I try to keep up with what my colleagues in the English Department are publishing, both books and scholarly articles (though it would be impossible to keep up with it all, because we are a prolific group). That helps me to feel like I’m part of a community of writers, not just scribbling away on my own.